DONG! DONG! DONG! The echo of the gong violated every crevice and corner of the auditorium. The vibration was a parasite clinging and shaking every organ in Anabel's body.
"Mauricio!" yelled Anabel. "Stop!"
DONG! DONG! DONG! Mauricio grinned, showing off his dimples and pearly whites as he banged the mallet. His buddies egged him on, hands over their ears.
"Please stop," she grunted as she attempted to pull the mallet from him. Mauricio let go, and Anabel flew backward, landing hard on her butt, sliding across the stage. The mallet punched her in the face.
She cried out, her hand going to her nose, as her glasses, broke in half, dropped into her lap. Blood dripped onto her favorite corduroy pants.
Mauricio and his friends stared, covering their snickers.
Jennifer ran to Anabel. "Here, put this on and squeeze the bridge of your nose." She pushed Anabel's head back, putting a cloth over her nose. Burning with embarrassment, she complied and then screamed as sharp pain scissored from her nose to her head.
"Oh no, I think you might have broken your nose. Let's get you to the nurse." Jenny glared at the laughing boys as she helped Anabel up.
In the woods, miles behind the auditorium, a humanoid shadow, arms outstretched, twisted, and writhed as green and brown vines snaked in and around it. Suddenly it sunk to its knees, its shoulders heaved as it looked in the distance toward the auditorium. An unnatural quiet blanketed the woods; no birds tweeted, no squirrels squawked and scurried about, not even the sound of leaves floating from the autumn trees. Even when the shadow struggled to stand, it pulled down small trees in its struggle. The shadow's vines slithered faster as the trees crashed silently to the forest floor. Finally, the shadow moved toward the auditorium. A deafening silence followed in its wake.
"Thanks for helping me. I...I got it from here. You don't need to take me to the nurse." Anabel pulled the cloth from her nose. "See? It stopped bleeding. I'm ok." She knew her face was covered in blood, but she smiled anyway. The last thing she needed was to go to the nurse. There was way too much to do.
"But…are you sure? I mean, your nose could be broken. You should probably go to the nurse." Anabel couldn't stand the pity she saw on Jennifer's face. Well, she assumed there was pity since her eyesight was now seriously compromised.
"No, thanks. I'm ok," she looked up at Jennifer. "I promise." Jennifer handed the two pieces of her glasses before she turned to go.
Her insides were quivering as she beelined towards the restroom. She couldn't believe she tried to take the mallet from Mauricio; the vibrations of the gong filled her body felt as if they would turn her inside out.
It had to be my imagination. The stress of getting the talent show together. Behind the scenes is a lot more pressure than getting on stage. I just need to take some deep breaths and get back to work.
The talent show was that night, and she still had to finalize the roster, make sure the sound and lights were set up correctly, set up the ticket table, and report back to Mrs. Duncan. She cleaned up, found some tape to fix her glasses, counted five deep breaths, and headed back to the auditorium.
Clipboard in hand, Anabel stood next to Mrs. Duncan as the students lined up. Her nose throbbed, and she was already sporting two black eyes. Mauricio and his friends stood at the front of the line as they were the opening act.
"Jeez Mauricio, look what you did to Anabel. Ya know you're not supposed to hit girls," said one of his friends.
"Shut up! It's not funny," Mauricio said as the rest of his friends laughed. He moved towards Anabel, looking at her with sad puppy eyes. "Hey, Anabel-"
Anabel looked at him, opened her mouth, then shut it again. Finally, she looked down at her clipboard, spun on her heel, and walked away, hoping that she looked as busy as she pretended to be.
She heard his friends teasing and laughing as she moved further backstage. She checked in with the sound crew and called the light crew on the walkie to confirm the lights were ready. Then, she moved to the side stage opposite Mauricio and his gang. The gong was standing ready on the same side.
She'd found the old gong at an old thrift store. She fell in love with the intricate red and gold pattern that weaved in and out of the bronze in wavy lines and circular paths. She sent a picture to Mrs. Duncan, who agreed to use it with the understanding that none of the students would be "gonged." The last thing Mrs. Duncan wanted was angry parents accusing her of singling out their precious baby, no matter how awful the performance was. So, they decided the gong would signify the beginning and end of the show.
At precisely 8pm, the lights dimmed, and the audience grew quiet. Anabel covered her ears with her hands, her body tense, as one of the students swung the mallet.
DONG! It reverberated through the auditorium, and even when the last echoes faded away, her body was covered in sweat and goosebumps.
"Deep breaths, deep breaths," she mumbled to herself, trying to regulate her breaths. Mauricio and his gang moved onto the stage wearing black leather jackets, holding lug wrenches, singing some song about lightning and grease. Mauricio held a steering wheel in his hand. Anabel shook her head at how ridiculous their act was as the audience attempted to clap to the music.
When Mauricio's group finished, a tap dancer came on, a yodeler, a kid with his dog doing tricks, and on and on until the last act, an archer with flaming arrows. This was Anabel's favorite act and the one she had to fight for. Mrs. Duncan did not want flaming arrows at a high school talent show, but the archer proved to Mrs. Duncan in an outside course that she wouldn't miss. Anabel believed that, while she'd never admitted it, Mrs. Duncan wanted the archer's act just as much as her. They needed something to save this shit show.
The archer started out with regular arrows and a few tricks. When she pulled back the fire arrow, and her assistant lit the end, the audience gasped. Then a heavy silence fell over the auditorium. Anabel did a double-take as she saw a large shadow loom over the archer. The silence felt like being submerged in water, the pressure pushed into her ears.
The archer fell forward as the arrow flew far from its course, igniting the stage curtain. There was only heavy silence where there should have been a swoosh as flames engulfed the curtain. The shadow from the forest rose tall above the stage as the audience, faces in silent screams, rushed to escape. Even as they knocked over chairs and ran toward the exits, no sound could be heard. Instead, panic and confusion showed on their faces as they pushed others out of the way or yelled words that made no sound.
Anabel's legs rooted to the stage as her head swung back and forth from the panic in the audience to the students running out from the stage to those that disappeared when they ran straight into the shadow. Meanwhile, the vines wrapped and slithered around the shadow's legs, its arms, and in and out of its torso as if its intestines were alive. She wanted to run, but fear froze her in place as the shadow moved towards her.
As it loomed over her, she looked up to see the faces of her classmates frozen in silent screams in the black deepness behind the vines. As a vine slid towards her, she screamed soundlessly; yet her legs still defied her by staying stuck in place. A woodsy, musky scent filled her senses as the vine stopped short of her and wrapped around the gong mallet.
She released a premature silent sigh of relief.
DONG! The sound of the gong unfroze her as she doubled over, trying to catch a breath. Anabel's whole body felt like a tuning fork; her heart felt as though it had stopped beating.
DONG! The vibration ran through her again, turning her inside out. Her heart felt like an old engine, rolling slowly to a start, then rumbling to a loud roar.
DONG! She ran towards the other side of the stage, where the archer's bow and arrow lay forgotten. Anabel swiped it up, notched the arrow in, and pulled back the string and arrow until it clicked like she'd watched the archer do 100 times. She let it loose and watched it fly up and over the giant.
Way to go, Miss Athletic. Only you could miss a giant! One fire arrow remained in the quiver, and she snapped it in and struck a match to light it.
Deep breaths, deep breaths. Remember how the archer did it. She ran closer to the shadow and shot the arrow into its center. The arrow disappeared into the blackness; the light flared, bathing the faces of her fellow students, then went black again. The vines continued to swirl as the shadow swung the mallet again.
DONG! She noticed the shadow grew larger, and the vines circled faster after each bang of the mallet. The vibrations threatened to erupt her body and organs into a bloody pulp.
DONG! She screamed silently, doubling over as the shadow grew larger. The vines became thicker, coating the shadow in green and brown crawling skin. She stumbled to where arrows had been and dumped the quiver over. A small bottle of lighter fluid dropped out of it.
DONG! She grabbed the lighter fluid and the matches and crawled towards the shadow; blood dripped from her face. The thick vines blocked out the shadow's darkness making it look like a demented, squirming, giant Groot.
DONG! She fell to her stomach; she wasn't sure she could go on anymore. Her skin felt as if a million tiny fire ants bit and skittered just below the surface. She pushed forward like an inchworm as she scooted between Scary Groot's legs. She aimed the lighter fluid bottle at the gong and doused it with fluid. She struck a match and tossed it at the gong. It erupted in flames, and the vines came down again swinging that damn mallet.
DONG! Blackness threatened at the corner of Anabel's eyes as the pain swelled to a new high.
What was I thinking lighting a piece of metal on fire? This whole place will burn down, and that stupid gong will still be here. She laid, defeated, on the floor of the stage, waiting for death to take her when she heard faint whispers emerging through the silence.
From the intricate design, a glow moved from the gong and hovered above the shadow's head. A red and gold halo grew larger and began to encircle the shadow in its light. The vines around the shadow slowed, and the shadow dropped to its knees as the light engulfed it. The whispers grew louder as the shadow disappeared into the light.
Anabel closed her eyes; the whispers filled her head as the fire raged around her. The red and gold light moved towards her, hovered around her body, and she no longer felt any pain. The light lifted her high above the stage. It flashed, covering the auditorium in blinding gold light, then disappeared, taking Anabel with it.